A lax approach to vaccines
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
On May 25, New Zealand — one of the first countries to successfully contain the virus spread — announced its coronavirus vaccine strategy to make sure its citizens are comfortably immunized as soon as candidates are ready for shipment. The state put up 37 million New Zealand dollars ($26 million) for the early batch.
At the time, the number of daily infections reported was an average of 1.1 cases. Yet the government immediately ordered a team to contact renowned vaccine developers. In October, it signed a deal for 1.5 million doses of the co-developed vaccines from Pfizer and BioNTech. In November, it reached an in-principle agreement to procure two million doses from Janssen Pharmaceutical of Johnson & Johnson, which only require one jab for immunization against the Covid-19, along with an option for another three million doses, enough to cover the country’s 4.8 million people. Daily cases from late October in New Zealand have stayed in the single digits.
While New Zealand got a head start in the vaccine procurement race, the Korean government was immersed in a self-congratulatory mood for quarantine measures that earned international credit. In a special address on May 10 marking his third year in office, President Moon boasted that Korea has become a leader in quarantine and was confident the virus could be contained. He has not mentioned a single word about vaccines. Average daily cases in May stood at 23.5. In the third supplementary budget announced on June 3, 120 billion won ($110.5 million) was earmarked to pitch on the country’s successful quarantine measures. A government vaccine backing team was set up, but it decided to work on foreign vaccine imports in late August. The procurement project lagged. On Tuesday, it finally announced a deal, a supply contract with AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, whose clinical trials achieved 70 percent efficacy. (The government said it plans to strike a deal with other vaccine producers, too). But new cases per day have already exceeded 600.
Everyone knew the Covid-19 war hinged on vaccines. When the novel influenza sprouted and sickened 280,000 people in 2009, America, Britain and other developed countries swept up vaccines, leaving others scrambling for leftovers.
While other governments were engrossed in the vaccine race, the Korean government and politicians have been preoccupied with runaway housing prices and a showdown between the justice minister and chief prosecutor. The most urgent issue of what vaccines to get first and how to design the procurement portfolio was pushed back. As a result, the government failed to get vaccines from Pfizer or Moderna, which proved the most effective, and must instead settle with what it can get from the AstraZeneca-Oxford shots with safety questions.
Everyone would want to be immunized with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines proven 94.5 percent effective. If they had a choice, they would not feel safe about a jab that may or may not work, three out of 10 times.
Authorities claimed they won’t rush with the deal at too high a price. Does it make sense for a government, which spends 120 billion won to pitch the country’s quarantine skills and doled out 22 trillion won in relief funds, to want to save a vaccine that costs 30,000 won to 40,000 won a dose?
Viruses cannot be avoided. But authorities would become liable if public health comes under a greater jeopardy because of an incompetent government that could not procure vaccines in time.